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A view of Flatbush looking west on Church Avenue, with Flatbush Dutch Reformed Church poking up in the distance.

Island-Hopping in Flatbush

Critic Robert Sietsema takes a winter tour of Caribbean fare in Brooklyn

A view of Flatbush looking west on Church Avenue, with Flatbush Dutch Reformed Church poking up in the distance.
| Robert Sietsema

One day, just as the weather began turning frigid and a stiff breeze blew from the west, two friends and I decided to embark on a Caribbean mini-vacation without ever leaving Brooklyn.

Flatbush and the adjacent neighborhoods of East Flatbush, Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, and Crown Heights harbor the city’s greatest concentration of Caribbean restaurants. Some are sprawling affairs holding a hundred or more, fit for wedding receptions and other celebrations, but most offer a few tables, counter-seating, or no seating at all.

Walking east down Church Avenue — where the looming steeple of the Flatbush Dutch Reformed Church, completed in 1798, sits at the center of what was originally a Dutch village — you’ll pass dozens of restaurants, cafes, ice cream parlors, and grocery stores selling island produce such as plantains, eddoes, and breadfruit.

Our first stop, a few blocks east, was Bebe Fritay (826 Rogers Ave., 718-676-1636). Fritayalso spelled fritailleis a Haitian Creole word that means something like, a place that sells fried things. By my count there are currently five fritays in Flatbush. In addition to generous, one-plate meals with rice and beans, their offerings include root-vegetable fritters, sausages, and fried meats such as the pork griot and goat cabrit.

Griot and cabrit are related to French confit, made with tidbits of boneless pork and bone-in goat, respectively. Chunks of meat are first marinated in a solution of shallots and sour orange (like Seville oranges traditionally used to make marmalade), then boiled in the marinade until it evaporates, annealing the solid parts to the surface of the meat. As a final step, the tidbits are fried in the rendered animal fat. A bite into them explodes with rich flavor.

The menu hangs over the order window in a room that seats only four along a counter in the window. And it encourages one to assemble a number of snacky small dishes in an aluminum carryout container that can be filled for around $15. We got some cabrit, a garlic sausage, twice-fried plantains just like Dominican tostones (reminding us that both countries share the island known as Hispanola), and some horn-shaped West African-style fritters. The twin influences of Africa and France give Haitian cuisine its distinctive character.

Robert Sietsema

Also called accra, the fritters were particularly delicious. They’re made from mashed malanga, a staple vegetable that looks like a furry potato, with flesh that can run to pink or gray. Mixed with garlic, chiles, and thyme, accra will cook up crisp and chewy, and are especially good when dipped in pikliz. In fact, everything tastes better dipped in pikliz, a juicy and spicy cabbage slaw fragrant with Scotch bonnet peppers.

After we’d excitedly downed the contents of our aluminum container, we trudged further east on Church. We passed Nio’s Trinidad Roti Shop, (2702 Church Ave., 718-287-9848) a decades-old institution famous for its crab roti and sahina, a taro-leaf fritter. Further up, we spied a vegetable stand where sour oranges were prominently displayed, then admired Kreyol Flavor (2816 Church Ave., 718-856-2100 ), a Haitian restaurant that offers a broader view of the cuisine than fritay, including the meat-dotted vegetable stew called bouillon, and the conch fricassee known as lambi. Next we spotted a bar across the street with the intriguing name of Queen Bee’s Tavern (3023 Church Ave., 646-651-0911).

Our next stop was Trini Breakfast Shed (3209 Church Ave., 718-282-2646), a Trinidadian café named after a famous pier in Port of Spain, Trinidad’s capital. Founded 80 years ago to feed dock workers, this portside fixture features stalls that peddle breakfast and lunch, mainly to office workers and tourists, including a fiery West African fish soup. We wondered if the café that stood before us, plastered with Trinidadian flags and posters for musical events, would have the soup. Turns out not, though there were plenty of other soups on the menu, all fit to make an entire meal. We sample the cow foot soup, which was pale and mellow, with big gelatinous gobs of bovine trotter, as well as carrots, potatoes, and chayote, a light green squash.

cow foot soup Robert Sietsema

Not content with just soup, we downed a chicken roti, which is an Indian flatbread that originated in Bengal, with crushed yellow split peas between its twin layers, wrapped like a burrito around a filling of chicken curry, potatoes, and chickpeas. It’s one of the most delicious things you’ve ever tried. We also had a generous serving of oxtail stew poured over rice and peas. The total cost of this splendid repast was less than $30 and we downed it at a table in the yellow and purple interior, as a line of customers waited for carryout.

You may think we’d be totally stuffed at this point, but we soon propelled out the door in search of more vittles from a different island, like a cruise ship filled with gourmands. As we walked back in the direction of the car, we passed another Trinidadian refectory on the same block, this one called Grace Before Meals Inc. (3113 Church Ave., 718-282-4035). The awning featured a pair of praying hands. We’d decided we wanted to seek out food from Barbados, where flying fish and cou-cou is the national dish, and many food items have playful names.

Natives of Barbados go by Barbadians or Bajans, so we picked a place called the Bajan Café, and set out by car for the southeastern frontier of Crown Heights, in a neighborhood sometimes called Wingate. But when we arrived the gate was pulled down tight and the place looked like it might have been closed for a while. Indeed, a call to the restaurant’s phone found it disconnected. We hopped in the car again and headed northwest, deeper into Crown Heights, passing the Kings County Hospital’s sprawling complex on the way.

Our destination was Culpepper’s (1082 Nostrand Ave., 718-940-4122). Next to Cock’s (806 Nostrand Ave., 718-771-8933), across Eastern Parkway on Nostrand but still in Crown Heights, it’s probably the city’s most celebrated Bajan restaurant, founded in 1998. The façade is deep yellow with a royal blue awning, reflecting the colors of the national flag. A counter with glass cases displaying pastries inside and through a doorway, a rear room displays plenty of table seating. Behind the counter on the wall is a menu full of the unique dishes of Barbados, but also listings such pan-Caribbean fare as goat roti and jerk chicken.

Sixty-four species of flying fish are native to the tropics, which, with a flip of the tail, can fling themselves out of the water and then glide with a pair of wing-like flippers as a way to avoid predators. Flying fish is also, along with a cornmeal porridge called cou-cou, considered the national dish of Barbados. The fish is generally breaded and fried, and tastes something like freshwater perch. We had a couple of filets with cou-cou with okra, which helps it slide down the gullet smoothly. The sauce was relentlessly mustardy. We liked the fish so much, we had more filets served with rice and peas and sweet plantain.

Robert Sietsema

Was our vacation over yet? Not quite. After the fish and starches, we ordered some lead pipes — a facetiously named pastry that really looks like a lead pipe, and hefts as heavy as one, too. Shot with coconut, the pastry is especially dense, perhaps to keep it from getting stale in a hot and humid climate. We also enjoyed a conkie, which is a tamale steamed in a banana leaf, the insides made with cornmeal and pumpkin and dotted with raisins. Showing the British colonial roots of Bajan culture, the conkie was invented to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day. Nowadays at Culpepper’s, you can enjoy it any day. In fact, we’d recommend it.

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